Home Basketball Kevin Pelton’s weekly NBA mailbag, including Bradley Beal

Kevin Pelton’s weekly NBA mailbag, including Bradley Beal


This week’s mailbag features your questions on the Cavs’ defensive issues, the future at point guard in San Antonio, how defensive metrics work and more.

You can tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to [email protected].

“Zach Lowe tweeted recently about Bradley Beal as a candidate for Most Improved Player. Is there much historical precedent for a player having such a big productivity jump after four years of basically flat growth? Beal’s low-hanging advanced metrics (ORtg, WS/48) didn’t change much over his first four years, and now he’s a borderline star. That strikes me as extremely uncommon (though as a Wizards fan, it makes me happy).” — Ben Becker

The same is true of Beal’s win percentage, the per-minute version of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric, before he jumped from .474 to .590 this season. So I went looking for players who have made similar jumps since the NBA began tracking turnovers, and you’re right that there aren’t many. Assuming Beal maintains it through the season, he’ll be the third player to improve his winning percentage by .100 or more in Year 5 over the best of his first four seasons — with a fourth just missing.

Johnson might not be comparable because of playing time: He played just 952 minutes in 2013-14, his fifth season. Posey added a 3-point shot in 2003-04 to fill the 3-and-D role he’d play for NBA champions in Miami and Boston. Lever was playing at a much higher level over his first four seasons but it wasn’t until he was traded from Portland to Denver before 1986-87 that he became a star point guard (though he wouldn’t make the All-Star team until the following season).

In the bigger picture, though, I’m not sure we should be surprised by Beal’s improvement. We tend to think of development as more linear and gradual than it usually is, at least in terms of results. And past improvement is not really a predictor of future improvement.

For all players since 1977-78 who played at least 500 minutes in each of their first five seasons, I graphed how their cumulative improvement between Year 1 and Year 4 compared to their improvement from Year 4 to Year 5.

As you can see, players who improved the most from Year 1 to Year 4 actually tend to decline in Year 5, and vice versa. Naturally, a lot of this is surely nothing more than regression to the mean, and it doesn’t necessarily suggest Beal should have been expected to improve. (Though his relatively young age for a fifth-year player changes the equation.) Still, it does suggest gradual improvement is more the exception than the rule.

“Shouldn’t the defensive rankings (e.g. the concern over the Cavs) be eyed a little more suspiciously this year than most? If you look at most past years’ rankings, the usual difference between the number 10 defense and the number 20 defense is three to four points per 100 possessions. This year it is more on the order of 1.5 points, meaning defensive differentials are more muddled and less stratified than in years past.” — Eric Beck

Yes, given that the distribution of team performance is different from year to year, looking at defensive rating relative to league average is probably the better way to go. Through Wednesday, Cleveland’s defense was allowing 1.5 percent more points per 100 possessions than league average.

A team with such a defensive rating might rank a little better — the 2011-12 Denver Nuggets ranked 19th with an identical relative defensive rating — but I’m not sure the difference is big enough to change any conclusions about the Cavaliers.

The 2000-01 L.A. Lakers remain the only team since the ABA-NBA merger to win a championship with a similarly poor defense during the regular season (in fact, their relative rating was an identical 1.5 percent higher than average). And just two other teams, the 1980-81 Houston Rockets and the 2014-15 Cavaliers, have reached the Finals with defensive ratings between 1.0 and 2.0 percent higher than league average.

“If you were San Antonio, what would you be comfortable with offering Patty Mills this offseason? Would it be reasonable to expect him to be at least a passable starting point guard in two seasons, after Tony Parker‘s contract expires?” — Evan Kirkpatrick

To take the latter question first, I think so. There’s been some concern about whether Mills can succeed without Manu Ginobili alongside him to share ballhandling duties. I don’t think the statistical evidence backs that up. The Spurs have a slightly better offensive rating (and net rating) when Mills plays without Ginobili, per NBA.com/Stats, and such lineups that include Kawhi Leonard have been more effective, posting a sizzling 115.6 offensive rating in 447 minutes. Some of that is probably Leonard and company beating up on second units, but we’ve also seen Mills finish several games recently.

Leonard’s development into a viable shot creator makes it easier to compensate for the fact that Mills is not a natural playmaker, and Mills’ shooting makes him a dangerous spot-up threat when Leonard isolates.

There are three issues here:

  1. Mills’ age (he’ll be 30 before the 2018-19 season)

  2. The possible development of Dejounte Murray into a starting-caliber point guard

  3. The ability for San Antonio to clear huge cap space in either the summer of 2018 or 2019, depending on whether LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green pick up 2018-19 player options, which is unlikely

A big one-year contract might be ideal for the Spurs in terms of retaining flexibility. Unfortunately, Mills will surely get multi-year offers from other teams, so realistically San Antonio would probably have to go at least two years. I’d probably be comfortable paying up to $30 million over that span, given how difficult it would be for the Spurs to replace Mills in free agency this summer.

“Messing around on ESPN’s real plus-minus page, I noticed that Spurs shooting guards own the top 3 — and 4 of the top 6 — defensive RPMs for their position. I know RPM takes account of context (teammates and competition), but does this speak to an inability to isolate individual contributions? Could it be that these guys are ‘stealing’ Kawhi Leonard’s defensive contributions? Or is Kyle Anderson better defensively than I thought?” – John Joseph McGovern

As I discussed last week with regard to Leonard, opponents’ 3-point shooting is a big factor in his relatively weak defensive RPM. And if we look at San Antonio’s on-court vs. off-court stats on NBA.com, we see that Anderson (opponents are making 31.6 percent of their 3s with him on the court) and particularly Jonathon Simmons (29.1 percent) are on the other end of that effect. (Danny Green, at 35.1 percent, has actually been on the bad side of opponent 3-point shooting, so it’s not an explanation for his defensive RPM.)

The other effect that comes into play is that a team’s defensive RPM has to sum to its defensive rating, and the Spurs have the NBA’s lowest defensive rating. So if Leonard isn’t getting as much credit for that as in years past, someone else has to get it, and the shooting guards have gotten a lot of the credit.

In case you aren’t following me on Twitter, Hopkins is the new men’s basketball coach at my alma mater, the University of Washington. How the Huskies do next season will probably be determined more by how many current players and recruits Hopkins can retain than his actual ability as a coach.

Already, starting forward Noah Dickerson has reportedly requested to transfer according to ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, and backup center Matthew Atewe has also received his release to transfer (though that might have been possible either way since Atewe played sparingly and should be eligible immediately as a grad transfer).

The UW said Thursday that incoming recruit Michael Porter, Jr., the No. 1 player in this year’s ESPN 100, has received a release from his national letter of intent. (Porter’s father, who was an assistant to close friend Lorenzo Romar, accepted a job at Missouri.) So, too, has four-star point guard Blake Harris. I doubt we’re done yet.

Ordinarily, the way to overcome this kind of post-coaching change turnover is to load up on transfers. But it’s been difficult historically for the Huskies to add grad transfers in particular. I don’t believe either the men’s basketball or football team has taken a grad transfer since the NCAA ruled that they can transfer without having to sit out a season. So I’d expect Washington to again be near the Pac-12 cellar in 2017-18. Anything better would be a pleasant surprise.

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